Raising the Standard

After almost a decade in the banking industry, Stephen Thomas hit the ground running when he moved into the commercial mortgage space. His competitors have been playing catch-up ever since

Few people dream of being a banker, but plenty of bankers see their dreams come true. Stephen Thomas certainly didn’t see himself becoming one, but after the 2008 financial meltdown claimed as a victim the clothing store he and his classmates at Humber College launched as a class project, there were few opportunities out there for a young, hungry, jobless entrepreneur.

Thomas’ then-girlfriend (and current wife) urged him to take a job with her employer, RBC. But so soon after launching, growing and then laying to rest his first business, Thomas had no appetite for a banking gig.

“No way. I would never work at a bank. Nine to five? I would never do it,” he remembers thinking. But after a spell of soul searching and less-than-successful job hunting in a recession-levelled job market, Thomas put a pin in his plans to start his own business and took a position with RBC’s contact centre in 2008.

But rather than douse his dreams of once again being an entrepreneur, working at RBC put Thomas on a path of continual development and growing success that led directly to where he is today. After cutting his teeth in direct sales, Thomas’ first significant opportunity came in 2009, when he was promoted to the role of private banking associate for RBC Wealth Management. Equally comfortable handling complex org charts, navigating estate planning and staying on top of countless business accounts, Thomas found the new position to be the perfect fit for his active, curious mind.

“It was never a bore. It was never a job,” he says. “I was always fascinated by the very simple or complex things that people did to earn a living as entrepreneurs.”

Thomas watched in awe as his mentor at the time, one of the country’s top private bankers, signed up multiple new ultra-high-net-worth clients every day. He explained to Thomas that there was no trick involved: His earlier career had been spent in commercial banking; he was simply talking shop with people in his network. His advice for Thomas – young, intelligent and highly ambitious – was to get into the commercial space as soon as possible.

Ready for liftoff

By late 2012, Thomas was a senior account manager at RBC, working with a portfolio of more than 350 business clients. But with RBC’s business banking arm largely the realm of specialists, Thomas felt it was in his best interest to develop his knowledge and expertise in a more general manner. In 2015, he began a two-year stint at BMO as a commercial account manager. It was a formative experience.

“When a customer walks in your door, they’re really depending on you as a trusted advisor, or even a partner, to their business,” he says. “When someone says, ‘I need a million dollars,’ it’s not just them who gets impacted. There’s a whole supply chain behind that client. As the person who takes the call, it’s really your fiduciary duty to do everything in your power – professionally, ethically – to make sure you’re providing unbiased results, advice and work ethic on that transaction.”

The work was eclectic – a manufacturing client today, a research facility tomorrow – and intellectually stimulating, but it wasn’t long before Thomas realized the transactions he was being asked to put together were better suited for other lenders, ones he knew had more appropriate risk appetites or more favourable underwriting parameters. He was faced with the constant challenge of hammering square deals into BMO’s round requirements, all while making the process appear seamless for his clients.

Thomas succeeded despite the friction, working his way into the company’s top 1% in 2016. But with a new baby at home and a wealth of experience and contacts at his disposal, he decided that, rather than work with one bank and pretend it has all the solutions a client could want, why not work with all of them?

Back in the driver’s seat

The following year was a busy one for Thomas. He got his mortgage license, began his relationship with Mortgage Alliance and finally got back to his roots as an entrepreneur by launching Halo Advisory, which he describes as “where high finance meets commercial real estate.” The management consulting firm specializes in complex, high-value transactions where financing can reach as high as 115%.

“When it becomes owner-occupied, the rules kind of change, and we’re able to do some pretty aggressive or creative things,” he says.

While raising awareness of Halo’s services, Thomas has realized just how short the commercial lending environment is on specialists, making it a far cry from the training-intensive environment he encountered in the banking world. He says the phenomenon of residential brokers working the commercial space is “rampant” and that commercial clients are “definitely underserved.”

Thomas says he’s frequently approached by residential brokers hoping to get a crash course on getting commercial deals across the finish line, but it’s not something one can learn in a transaction or two. That’s why Thomas has been urging the industry to enact new designations for commercial brokers that will better protect their clients.

“You’re impacting companies, families and large, large transaction dollar amounts,” he says. “There’s a lot of risk for everyone involved.”

Until the rest of the commercial sector catches up, Thomas is happy to keep leading by example.